Symposium Addresses Issues of Safety and Security

October 17, 2007

Six faculty members from universities throughout the country addressed diverse issues of safety in a post-9/11 world in a symposium titled "Speaking Safety and Security," held on October 12.

Organized by the Center for German and European Studies and co-sponsored by the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life, the event featured discussions focusing on the measures governments and other entities take in the name of security and the pervasive sense of fear and mistrust that these efforts often engender.

In a talk titled "Safe Passage: Mexico City," Rebecca Biron of Dartmouth College criticized the proposed fence along the Mexican border, saying that it won't keep people out and will hurt the economy of border towns. "Its construction clearly serves a symbolic purpose more than a material need," she said. Biron also noted that passageways of Mexico City's sewer and transportation systems serve to divide the city into zones of rich and poor.

David Bell of Duke University spoke on "Bunker Mentalities," referencing the literature of air wars and historical events such as bomb shelters built during the Cold War. He cited a "bunker mentality" that has formed since the attacks of 9/11, an atmosphere in which "homeland security trumps representative democracy," he said.

Beth Diamond of the University of Michigan spoke about student installations of art on campus, in a talk titled "Safe Speech: Instigating Dialogue in Public Space." She showed images of art satirizing fraternity life and the debate surrounding same-sex marriage, which provoked hostility from interest groups. "Everyone believes in free speech as long as no one is insulted, and no one's feelings are hurt," she said. We have less to fear from ideas than those who want to silence those ideas, Diamond contended.

In a talk titled "Safety's Sanity," Robert Harvey of SUNY-Stony Brook criticized the Bush administration for contravening the Geneva Conventions and measures such as Homeland Security's color-coded threat levels for instilling fear into the public. "Terror has been maintained and encouraged by the very government that is supposed to help the population be and feel safe," he said.

James Mandrell of Brandeis spoke on "Madrid / New York / 11-M / 9-11: A Cross Cultural Rhetoric." He compared the reaction and rhetoric surrounding the attacks on New York and Madrid. When residents of Spain voted out the government in power immediately after the attacks in Madrid, that country faced reprisals from the U.S. for "kowtowing to Al Qaeda," he said. In the U.S., the rhetoric of fear divides the world into us versus them, according to Mandrell. "The purpose was to place evil over there so we could remain good," he said.

Lawrence Schehr of the University of Illinois spoke on "Mineshaft Gap: Vigipirate and the Subject of Terror." He identified Vigipirate as the corresponding French program to the Patriot Act, which, he said, motivates the French people to consider racial minorities more suspicious and to "embrace a logic of racism." Schehr talked about Jaques Derrida's idea that terrorism has become "the malady of the 21st century."